Inside Labor’s super wealth tax plans

Those with $1 million in super are likely to be in the super firing line.

Summary: The government is planning a major tax slug for super members who are a little above average. How much above is the $1 million question.
Key take-out: The thinking is that any change would probably occur as part of this year’s Federal Budget.
Key beneficiaries: Superannuation investors and SMSF trustees. Category: Portfolio management.

I accept that I can be a bit of a cynical bugger. It becomes ingrained with a few decades of journalism under one’s belt.

So I wasn’t aware that I even owned a pair of rose-coloured glasses. But I clearly had a pair on to write last week’s column Don’t make the ultimate super sacrifice.

Here’s last week’s final paragraph: “As we enter an election year, the best we can probably hope for is that the tide finally turns. Instead of governments and oppositions claiming that super is too generous, that things at least get to a position where the cuts have been made and we can look forward to some positive news.”

That glimmer of hope was shattered in less than one day.

The following morning, credible rumours circulated that suggested the Federal Government was far from finished with super. And it’s not just tinkering. We’re talking about some major downgrades. I have detailed those potential changes below, but also have a look at today's Inside Line video where Managing Editor James Kirby and Alan Kohler discuss Gillard's super tax plan.

Today, Prime Minister Gillard has ruled out taxing withdrawals on superannuation for people aged over 60. That is a big relief. But following the introduction of a super slug on higher income earners ($300,000-plus) last year, it would appear that anyone the government believes appears to be a certain point above average is now a target.

There could be penalty taxes for super funds worth more than $1 million – a super wealth tax, or super wealth taxes.

We got softened up for this being a possibility late last year when it appeared that self-managed super funds were going to be a target of a government intent on balancing its budget (an aim later dropped). It appeared at the time that Superannuation Minister Bill Shorten won a battle with Cabinet.

That the rumours have reappeared, with even worse transgressions planned, suggests it was an uneasy truce declared late last year.

But what is the magical figure that’s “too much, too rich”?

The government clearly has a figure in its head. Individual super balances below this figure are okay. Anything over this figure is ripe to be leached and taxed.

It would certainly appear to be north of $500,000, and possibly around the $1 million mark, as an individual’s balance.

Why? Labor is on the record as accepting that $500,000 in super isn’t much. It’s aborted attempt to allow over-50s with less than $500,000 to have a higher concessional contributions threshold (the 50-50-500 rule) showed that. It is due to reintroduce that rule (but don’t hold your breath) on July 1, 2014.

The rumours last week suggested that those with $1 million in super could bear the brunt of any soon-to-be launched tax attack. They’re fair game to be fleeced, or at least touched up with some shears, it would appear.

Is $1 million in super that much? Is it so way-above average that those with seven figures in super are fair game for massive tax hikes?

Let’s take a $1 million SMSF that is producing a post-tax, post-fees, return of 6% ($60,000), which was being drawn as income. Should someone earning $60,000, which is about the average salary, be hit with a penalty tax for having too much in super? (The main difference, to be fair, is that a $60,000 super pension is, currently, tax free.)

If they’re drawing the entire earned income of the fund and just leaving the initial capital of $1 million, then the purchasing power of the $1 million erodes over time, unless a return of 6% plus inflation, with the excess being reinvested, occurs.

Or might the government simply declare that super fund members should just be taxed something on that income. I think this is what Labor is getting at – and what financial advisers, accountants and the finance industry have feared for a few years now.

Tax-free pensions are a relatively new thing, introduced in the dying days of the Howard government’s final term. It’s pretty clear, even if Treasury was uttering “Yes Minister” to Treasurer Peter Costello at the time, that the onset of the GFC changed the ball game for Treasury, which had to retract its support.

The secretary of Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, is understood to be regularly on the attack over the level of tax concessions handed out to super, and particularly those earning high salaries. He’s got an eye to the future. And the $30 billion-plus, and growing, concessions for super concern Treasury’s boffins.

When would Labor act?

The thinking is that changes would probably occur as part of this year’s Federal Budget. Labour could announce big super tax changes, which could help fund its upcoming election promises.

That could also work into the Opposition’s hands. Tony Abbott’s promise of no negative changes to super wouldn’t necessarily have to include having to undo changes enacted prior to the slated September 14 election. He could just be starting from a lower base than even he had been expecting.

The information contained in this column should be treated as general advice only. It has not taken anyone’s specific circumstances into account. If you are considering a strategy such as those mentioned here, you are strongly advised to consult your adviser/s, as some of the strategies used in these columns are extremely complex and require high-level technical compliance.

Bruce Brammall is director of Castellan Financial Consulting and the author of Debt Man Walking. E:

Graph for Inside Labor’s super wealth tax plans

  • The SMSF community scored a “minor win” when the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) confirmed trustees would not be penalised for making an “honest mistake”, according to Nexia Australia’s Sydney superannuation director Barclay Judge. “If a trustee is away on holidays and forgets to make the regular payment from their SMSF, they will now have the opportunity to make a catch-up payment and continue to qualify for the pension,” Judge said, according to media reports. Last month the ATO advised that if a trustee made a small underpayment due to an “honest mistake”, it would exercise discretion. The ATO also confirmed that a catch-up payment to remedy the mistake would be due within 28 days of a trustee becoming aware of such a breach.
  • The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) has called on Treasury to consider small parcels of shares for self-managed super fund (SMSF)-related party transfers in order to allow SMSF’s to wind down if they so wish, according to media reports. The government is currently considering implementing legislation to ban in-specie transfers of listed shares off-market. “An unintended consequence of any hard and fast rule here may be that SMSFs seeking to wind up may not,” the ASFA reportedly said.
  • The SMSF Professionals' Association of Australia (SPAA) has called on SMSF auditors to register as early as possible to ensure they can audit funds from July 1, when the new licensing rules come into effect. Registration is mandatory for those conducting an SMSF audit from July 1. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) has confirmed that auditors could face sanctions if they conduct an audit after this date without having registered first.

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